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Open Letter to Leon Panetta

Mr. Leon Panetta
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense and
Former Member of Congress

Mr. Panetta:

On today’s Diane Rehm Show you proudly explained that you now devote your time to encouraging young people to pursue “public service.”  The implication is that society needs more “public servants.”

“Public service” is a lovely term.  But it’s a euphemism for government, and government – whatever its merits or demerits – achieves its ends overwhelmingly by ordering people about.  So to be in “public service” is to be in the business of compulsion.

The opposite of “public service” enjoys no analogously lovely euphemism.  But in a society based on private property rights, people operating in the private sector prosper only if, and insofar as, they persuade other people voluntarily to cooperate with them.  In the private sector, no one tells anyone else what to do; rather, we each can only ask of others.  People in the private sector are therefore in the business of mutually beneficial and peaceful cooperation.

Contrary to your belief, society would be better off the greater are the number of young people who pursue careers as peaceful persuaders – such as, for example, retailers who persuade shoppers to frequent their stores – and the fewer are the number of young people who pursue careers as armed and arrogant busy-bodies (i.e, as “public servants”).

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030